Building an off-grid home in Matarraña

There's one universal truth: when you have a house of your own, it's never truly finished. There's always something to tweak, reparations to be made, maintenance to be done or (if you have a big property and even bigger plans) buildings to be added... but on the grand scheme of things, we could say that our house is now as good as finished. The upstairs (our private area) still needs work (painting & decorating, getting a stove) and the downstairs guest area some minor tweaks.

These days, we're showing people around the house on a regular base - guests, neighbours, volunteers, people interested in doing a similar project, or just random people fascinated by what we're doing here. Since we get a lot of recurring questions, I thought it a good idea to put them "on paper" for everybody to read...
Some of the things in this list are things we experienced first hand - others we were warned about and were able to do differently in our house. 

 

1. Budget

You came to Matarranya with a certain budget in mind, and it's great if that budget allows you to build your dream home in the hills. Sometimes, people don't think of everything that should be included in the budget though...

Our very cool chickshaw (chicken tractor) did not come free... 

Our very cool chickshaw (chicken tractor) did not come free... 

  • There are many steps towards a house - permits, assessments, notary costs, more permits, more analysis,... Each step will cost you money.
  • Where do you get water? Drilling a well is costly - don't forget the water deposit, filters (the limescale is currently killing our appliances - not to mention our pump), a pressure pump if your water deposit isn't way higher than your bathroom. We've got a solar powered pump, and a system that makes sure the deposito is filled on sunny days, or (if it's almost empty on a sunless day) using the generator. 
  • What will you do with your land? If you're not planning to live on it, you might have a local farmer taking care of it (in exchange for the harvest). If you're planning on working it yourself (harvesting olives or almonds, setting up a vegetable garden, maybe planting more fruit trees), it's going to cost money - getting tools and machinery, seeds and plants. Maybe you'll even want some animals; they will need housing (which might need planning permission) and feeding.
 

2. Learning from other people's stories

There are now dozens of people (individuals, couples, families and communities) who have relocated here to work on their dream; go out, contact them, visit their project, talk to them, listen to them. And I mean really listen to them! Everybody has stories - the good, the bad and the funny. Some people are pessimistic in nature and emphasise or exaggerate the bad parts - others are so upbeat they won't tell you about bad stuff. It's easy to listen and think "that would never happen to me"; there's always two sides to every story, but at least hearing those stories help you create an image of what might happen. You can learn so much from other people's experiences; the stories from people around here helped us, loads. And they still do!

 

3. The local community

The success of your adventure depends on several factors - the people helping you achieve your dream is a very big factor.
Coming from a big city and an automated society, we had to get used to village life; getting to know many villagers has proven to be one of the keys to success. Go to local shops, pay your ayuntamiento (the town hall) a visit when you have questions; people here are incredibly nice and usually more than happy to help. Every village seems to have one or two people who know everything going on; ask for their advice when looking for a place to rent, people to help out with the work, places to visit,...
From the start, we just talked to everybody we met; now we get a call the day before hunters pass our land (great to know when to keep our dogs and chickens locked up), the older villagers will tell us stories about what happened on and around our finca in the old days, and we feel as accepted in the local community as a foreigner only speaking broken Spanish can be

 

4. The language barrier

Of course, all of this only works if you learn Spanish. We took classes before we came here, so we could at least go to the shop or order food at the restaurants; coming here, we took a dictionary everywhere we went (especially convenient at said restaurants). Around here, everybody speaks Spanish (Castellano) and Chapuriau (a dialect of Catalan). Very few people speak English or French; they are incredibly nice though -  they help us with grammar and we still learn new words every single day. Inma, the butcher in Cretas, would share recipes for the meat I'd buy there; our neighbour Enrique shows us how he tends his garden and his fruit trees whenever we have questions; I learned all about body parts in Spanish doing yoga at Kurkum Farm. It would have been much easier to try and speak English and use body language to get around in the area - but we wouldn't have learned as much, and not made the same connections.

This also applies when sending out e-mails; people will often send e-mails to Spanish people in English. Imagine a Brazilian person coming to your country of origin and sending you an e-mail in Portuguese... would you really do the effort to translate it, or would you just assume it was spam? Right. If you really have no clue, you can use a translator. I use Google Translate. I still do, when I have to send out a longer e-mail; I will translate it online, then type it out using words I understand. This also helps me improve my Spanish. 

If you're not ready to learn Spanish (or you're just having a hard time), make sure you have a person by your side who's really on your side when doing important things. For instance, when I broke my knee in my second week here, I could have used somebody to translate my pain during my first few doctor's visits; it could have saved me the 3 months of "rest" I shouldn't have taken with this kind of injury, and the months of revalidation that followed. We could also have brought in a native speaker on our side to point out ambiguities when signing contracts; we might not have changed anything about them, but at least we'd have realised back then that everything could be interpreted a different way.

 
Axel did a lot of finishing himself (like tiling the place) - sometimes with the help of friends or volunteers. 

Axel did a lot of finishing himself (like tiling the place) - sometimes with the help of friends or volunteers. 

5. Choose the people you work with

When you're building a house, you will spend a whole lot of time with the people involved in the project. One person you can't do without, is the architect. There are plenty of them in the area; some speak perfect English and others don't, some are all about natural building while others are more into modern architecture; some see your project as a work of art they want to share with the world, while others see themselves as a tool to be used by the client and doing their bidding. What's important, is that you find the architect that's just right for you; someone who will listen to your dream and take it to another level. Preferably a higher one.

The same procedure applies to people you'll be working with while building your house. So far we've been incredibly lucky with most of the people we've worked with - it feels good working with local people and locally made stuff. Most of them take a real pride in their work and did (or are doing) an amazing job; I guess it's no fun to bump into people at the village fiesta if you've done a lousy job at their house :-)

 

6. Pay attention to the details

There are some particularities about the Spanish culture (or nature), that are slightly different from many other countries; I thought I'd list a few...

  • It was logical for our architect & builder to place the windows on the inside of the walls. In Belgium & Holland, you'll place them in the middle, so you have a window sill outside AND inside... I'm not saying one is better than the other, but I miss window sills in my house!
  • Standard beds are smaller in Spain than they are in many other countries. You can still find king size beds (or at least, beds that are 2 meters long) in many specialised shops though. Take into account that when your architect designs the bedrooms, he'll probably put a 1m40 x 1m90 bed in the design (and make the room look bigger than it actually is). 
  • Ever wondered why traditional Spanish houses don't have big windows? You'd need a very big overhang (all around) to keep the sun out in the heath of summer... For instance our bedroom has a 2m covered balcony in front of the sliding door / window, but we still get some sun inside.
    Our living room windows are a lot smaller - but as they have a smaller overhang as well, we're getting full sun through those windows until about 14h in the middle of summer, which makes the living room the hottest room in the house. We're planning to have outside shades installed - probably a project for next spring though.
    If you've got big windows, make sure you have curtains - they do make a difference when you're heating up the place in winter, and you get to draw a curtain when the sun is flashing off your computer screen. 
  • At first, we really wanted a wooden floor; since good quality wood is not from here, you can either go for the fake stuff (we have wood-looking tiles, and so happy with them!), pay a lot of money to get imported wood, or just go for a different quality (and I don't mean better). Also, due to the huge differences in temperature and humidity, wood will expand and shrink a lot more here than it would in places with a more constant climate.

  • There are technical differences as well - I'm not a technical person so I'm not going into details, but I've been led to understand that you need a different kind of solar panels here than what's recommended in the Netherlands, a heat pump would not provide the same benefits (and be more expensive) here than in the north, and some techniques that are very common in other countries are barely used here (and vice versa). I've heard stories where people absolutely wanted a certain (technical) element in their system, but local people messed up the installation as they had no idea how to do it.
    For more technical stuff, please talk to my husband :-)
 

7. A Sound System

One of the things that can make or break your comfort living off the grid, is the presence of a good system. 4 things are most important here:

A - Water

Having a reliable source of good water is indispensable. Many people around here dig a well - in most cases (including ours), I don't think it's worth the cost though.

  • The water can turn out to be much much deeper than anticipated (we know people with a borehole about 250m deep, while they had expected to draw water at about 150m - guess who had to pay for the extra work). 
  • The water can turn out to be exceptionally salty or silty; several people in a neighbouring village have water that's saltier than the sea. 
  • Often, pumps will work to hard or not be completely adapted to the work they need to do; many, many of our acquaintances had their pump break for different reasons. 
  • One friend even had her borehole collapse on them after a few years - waste of investment

Drilling for water can be very expensive, and in hind sight we would not do it again. There are some very viable alternatives: 

  • Rainwater catchment: this needs a lot of calculation (especially if you're going to rely on this for all your water needs - showering, drinking and irrigation) but around here, it's definitely possible to live on water you harvested - if your roof and tanks are big enough. 
  • Having water delivered by the truckload: we know of a few people who rely on this. It's not too expensive (if you compare it to the costs of a borehole), very reliable and comfortable. 
  • Getting a smaller water tank (a "cubo" will hold 1000L) on a trailer and filling it up in the village (you'll pay a small fee) or on mountain water (there are taps here and there in Els Ports). This is not suitable for a big family, and it requires some creativity (composting toilet?) 

B - Electricity

We have seen awesome off-grid electrical systems, and we have seen very lousy (and overpriced) ones. We are happy with our system so far; it works on solar power mainly - but if something happens and the batteries can't provide enough, the generator kicks in automatically. We've had a few minor problems so far (the generator not kicking in automatically, for instance), but thankfully the installer was there quickly to fix it. Also, we made sure we could do several things at the same time - the dishwasher, washing machine and (electrical) oven can all be on while I'm vacuuming without the whole system failing. We have made very few concessions; although I don't own a hair dryer and boil my water in a kettle instead of an electrical water heater, we made sure our guests will be able to use those if needed.
Take a look at other people's systems and talk to a few knowledgable people (I don't mean the guy selling you his system) before planning your own; don't rush into ordering a system that might not cover all your needs.

C - Heating & cooling

Obviously, there is more work to be done in our house when it comes to cooling; we'll need outside shades for the living room windows to keep the sun out, and we might install some fans in the ceiling at some point as well. Having air conditioning makes no sense to us; if my house were really really cool in the middle of summer, I wouldn't be able to cope with even moderate heat when going out.
Many people living off the grid around here seem to struggle with keeping the house warm in winter; big rooms with high ceilings feel nice and airy in the summer, but it's a lot of extra room to heat up on colder days.

D - Internet and phone connection

To some this is an afterthought, but if you have an internet job like me it's important. Off-grid houses around here usually have their internet either from satellite or through radio waves; which one is better for you depends on your line of sight (for radio waves you need to be able to catch the antenna in a neighbouring village). Same goes for phone reception; we made sure before buying we had perfect reception on most of our land, but if you don't a reception booster could help. Again, talk to your neighbours and with other people facing similar challenges.

 

8. Start a business

Ah, the joys of starting a business in Spain. To some, it makes sense as it's a way to get into the social security system and to get VAT back, and some people even apply for a grant for new touristic businesses; however, you might not get all the VAT back, I haven't heard of anyone ever really getting money from that grant and there is a lot more paperwork.
It can also cost a lot of money, depending on the type of business you are going for. You can't do without an accountant and those are not cheap; if you start a S.L. or similar, there are notary costs involved as well. Depending on the type of business you might have to meet all kinds of requirements (for instance for a B&B, we need to have chlorinated water, somebody needs to certify your well produces enough water for the amount of guests you're allowed and things will generally get checked more thoroughly). If you choose to be self-employed, there are the autonomo payments which can be very high (usually about €267 per person per month). And last but not least, you might not be allowed to officially start your business before all requirements are met, which means it can take a long time before you can start reaping any benefits.
So if your main reason to come and live here is to start a business, do go ahead and good luck; if having a business would just be a way for you to make things cheaper, please do your calculations (and again, talk to others) before diving into it head first.

 

9. The project and building permit

I am still not 100% certain how a project is supposed to go around here, but this is what I know for sure... Building a house (or more, that's why it's called a project) is something that takes many steps. From the moment you agree on the plans with your architect to the moment you have an officially registered house, it will take many years - nothing you can do about that, it's a slow process.
From the start of the project and the moment you'll be able to live in your house, a lot of time will pass as well; it is very advisable to think first about the life you'll live while you wait - most people start out renting a house in the village, but I've talked to many people who would rather have lived in a caravan, a yurt or a temporary building on their land in the years they spent waiting. Check this with your ayuntamiento (town hall) first - most will allow it as long as you've got a serious project running, and it's just a temporary thing. Some will want you to get a "real" house and only allow a building on your land for storage, as long as you haven't started to build. 
Nothing compares to living on your own land though - spending zero on rent / electricity / gas / whatever (unless you count the occasional bottle if you're cooking on gas) and just being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Between the day the architect told us the whole project was ready to go into the building permit process (January 2014) and the day we did get said building permit (February 2015) it seemed like so much time passed - and although the foundations were dug in March 2015 and the builder put the last hand to a last detail in May 2016, we're still waiting for the architect, the builder and the surveyor to come together and sign the "final de obra", meaning that the house is ready. We know that when we have that final de obra, it will still take years for our house to be registered; as we're living completely off the grid and no house has been here before, officials will have to come and check if everything has been done meeting the necessary requirements, the architect will have to compose a completely new book of plans and technical stuff (including many small changes the builders have made during construction), and hopefully in a year or 2-3 we'll be able to go to the notary to sign the enormous amount of paperwork involved... and we'll have a fully regulated house.

Sunrise in Matarraña - beats a picture of me doing paperwork

Sunrise in Matarraña - beats a picture of me doing paperwork

10. Mañana, mañana... the cultural differences

Most people back in the North would laugh at our ambitious plans - ah yes, but you're going to Spain and it's "mañana, mañana" over there. Has that turned out to be true? Well... yes and no.
Our experience working with local professionals is that if you make an appointment, they'll be there; they might be a bit late (it's very normal here to be stuck in traffic behind a tractor or a flock of sheep), but "la hora es la hora". Often though,  appointments are not made for an exact time, but for a certain timeframe like "after I brought the children to school" or "before lunch". Which might be difficult for people from a time-oriented society (like us!) to understand at first, but you get used to it very quickly. The trick is not to waste your time waiting for people, but to do your own thing until people show up.  One exception to this whole "showing up" thing turned out to be our project manager, who is a total sweetheart but gets so caught up in talking to people about their projects, that he will totally forget about the next appointment he made and either turn up hours late, or not turn up at all (and forget to cancel)... which made for many, many lost mornings / afternoons / full days waiting for him to show up. But since most of his clients know that after meeting him once or twice, apparently that's ok.
People here do get their priorities straight though; they might tell you they will continue work tomorrow but if their child gets sick or if there's an urgent job at another client's place, who can blame them for changing their plans? Also, as soon as it rains, the whole area just hits pause - many roads (to off-grid properties) are difficult to drive on after a rainfall, and also going out in the rain is messy and not convenient. Social gatherings get cancelled, orders are delayed and many people don't work when it rains... Rain is not a very regular happening here though, so that as well is something you get used to very quickly.

 What would we have done differently? We regret nothing - but in hindsight, we would probably not have been this impatient to start a business (the B&B) and build the big house - we would have renovated the maset (the tiny old donkey shed we lived in before the big house was finished), invested more in tools, machinery and animal shelters / storage / workshops, and get everything else started before starting the big construction project. In the mean time, we would probably have had the time to think about the "whole thing" (the bungalows we'd like to build all around), so we'd have applied for a building permit including everything at once.

Living off the grid is actually much more comfortable than we could ever imagine - and the best thing is, once you've got a vegetable garden going and some chickens free ranging around your house, living here costs next to nothing (at least, compared to living in a big city). As I said, nothing compares to living on your own land - when everything fails, things are going sour, projects take too long to be finished, your olive trees fail to produce anything and the fox just ate all of your chickens... You're still living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. On your own land. Doing whatever you like, whenever you want to do it.

This post was first published July 12th, 2016 on my Mas del Encanto blog. I've made a few minor adjustments when posting it here, mainly in the part about boreholes and correcting some weird sentences.

Question to fellow Matarranya expats here: if there's anything you feel is missing or anything you'd like to add, feel free to write me / or to comment, here or on Facebook / Twitter / wherever.